David Lister: Listen to Nigel

The Week in Arts: When Nigel speaks, people should listen

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A real highlight of this year's BBC Proms has occurred already. It was the performance by Nigel Kennedy last weekend. The sold-out show will be transmitted on BBC2 tonight. You might wonder, as I did, why the BBC, which runs the Proms and broadcasts many of them live, did not broadcast this event live, but decided to wait a full week before showing it. There is a technical reason for this – they're nuts.

But, more important, the triumphant return of Kennedy to a British concert platform after a long absence was an object lesson in how to make classical music more appealing to new and young audiences. Nigel did something breathtakingly simple, but at the same time breathtakingly radical. He talked to the audience.

OK, it was banter of a studiedly Kennedyesque type – "We gonna do a bit of British romantic music" when introducing Elgar's violin concerto. But it established a rapport with the audience. And in his praise of conductor Paul Daniel at the end for not "messing around" with the music (which I suspect meant giving Kennedy his head), he also gave an insight into a virtuoso's thinking.

Why does it have to be written in stone that classical soloists, and conductors, never chat to the audience? Rock performers do it. I have seen many of the great violinists of the age, but Kennedy is the first I have heard speak on stage. Of course one goes to see them play. That is paramount. But their thoughts on the piece they are about to play or have just played would be a big bonus. Even a "hello" would be nice. The way the audience members responded to Kennedy's chat left me in no doubt how much they appreciated it.

In America, too, a radical departure in presentation of a classical music concert has taken place. The New York Philharmonic played in Central Park to an audience of 61,000. (What our own orchestras would give for that.) That audience was told that it could choose the encore, text messaging its preferences from a small list in the programme. The audience deciding on the encore by text messaging? Well, why not? A summer outdoor concert is a fun event as well as a chance to hear beautiful music expertly played. Let's hope that the organisers of the Proms do the same thing for the Proms in the Park concerts.

I was struck, too, this week by other ways classical music and opera are trying to change their image. Tony Hall, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House, has said that some relays of Royal Opera performances to cinemas will be shown in 3D, so you will don your 3D glasses before watching Don Giovanni. He also said that all 2,200 seats at the opening performance in September of the same opera at Covent Garden will be reserved exclusively for Sun readers in an attempt to woo a very different opera audience. Meanwhile, Welsh National Opera singers will perform on the beach at Porthcawl in August as a live soundtrack to a film being made there about surfing.

I'm not at all convinced by the idea of a national opera house funded by the taxpayer reserving all of its seats for readers of one newspaper, however boisterous the evening turns out to be. But taken together, all these disparate initiatives show that opera and classical music are at last prepared to be bolder in reaching out to new audiences.

No doubt Independent readers will be able to suggest even more ideas to Tony Hall when, in the interests of fairness, he announces an Independent-only evening at Covent Garden.

Crass stupidity, Joanna

The singer Joanna Newsom has built up a strong reputation in the pop and folk worlds. She looks striking, which is not that rare, and she has won a young audience by singing and playing the harp, which is quite rare. What a pity, though, that she began her concert in the Somerset House courtyard in London by saying to the audience: "What a lot of white people."

It's a crassly stupid remark to make. If Miss Newsom has failed to attract black fans, then that is the fault of her and her music, not the punters who have actually paid money to see her. Is she trying to prove that she is hipper and more socially aware than everyone else around her?

What makes the statement even sillier is that it wasn't even true. The audience did, as it happens, contain white and black fans. I suggest that the next time she performs, she would do better just to thank people for coming. She might also invest in a pair of glasses.

* Watching the first night of the excellent revival of West Side Story at Sadler’s Wells on Thursday, I was struck by how two much repeated points of language in the musical now seem bizarrely quaint.

The Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants to New York in the 1950s, are referred to constantly as the PRs. The trouble is that those initials now tend to mean something other than Puerto Rican, and I kept having this strange image of the Sharks as a bunch of public relations executives flinging their cappuccinos at the opposing gangs.

There was another thought which distracted me from the action. I found myself wondering when exactly, which year, which month, which time of day, did the word Daddy-O stop being used in common parlance. There must have been a moment when self-respecting teenagers looked at each other and said: "Hang ona minute, this word is really, really sad."

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